Re: Why do we have choirs?
- Dear Stan,
Now I understand why you would think of the music of the
Russian Orthodox Church as a break from tradition. The
good news is that the historical account you're giving is
not an accurate one.
Nikon's reforms, bringing the Russian Church into line with
contemporary Greek customs (and having nothing to do with
the Catholics), were carried out from 1652 to 1656. In the
1660s there was a Russian chant reform similar to that of
the Three Teachers in Greece 150 years later (a reform
which was accepted by many of the Old Believers). Editions
of most of the liturgical books containing most of the ancient
melodies were published by the Moscow Synodal printing office
beginning in 1772, using a form of staff notation which any of
us can easily learn to read. These books were reprinted up to
the time of the Revolution. The ancient melodies were not
banned or exterminated, and in fact formed the basis for
the music of the Moscow School (Gardner's second epoch,
The Ukrainian musical influence you speak of began when
the Moscow principality took control of Ukraine in 1654.
Ukrainian singers were highly regarded and were hired to
sing in important Russian churches. Their largely improvised
harmonizations in a style still popular among the Carpathians
was the beginning of a gradual development leading to written
out choral music.
Again, this Ukrainian influence was definitely a stylistic
departure from the earlier Russian domestic polyphony,
but the latter was the beginning of polyphony in Russia.
You might recall my attempts to post some sound files
of this earlier Russian polyphony in this list's file section
Interesting for this discussion--we can learn something about
the priorities of the Old Believers by reading Nikita Simmons'
ideas about what is wrong with harmonizations sung by choirs.
He says that these "had the twofold result of a) excluding the
general masses of worshippers from participation in the singing,
and preparing them for passivity, weariness, and even boredom,
and b) shifted the center of attention from an interior attitude
of simple liturgical prayer sung by everyone to an external posture--
that of focusing on external esthetics." This analysis would seem
to put the Old Believers squarely in opposition to those
who would only allow the most rigorously trained chanters
to sing anything in church.
I'd like to thank you for your willingness to discuss all these matters,
and for yours and Nancy's fine work. I know that you are indeed
doing whatever you can to help people to appreciate and assimilate
our musical inheritance, and are providing music within the tradition
for those who lack the skills needed to perform Byzantine chant.
Happy feast day!
>Maybe so, but the sudden end came in the 18th Century from the
>reforms of Peter the Great, who in a few years time, built a new
>capital in the West and Westernized the culture. He banned the
>old music and hired Church composers trained in Italy and patterned
>the music after the Catholics. He and his successors pursued and
>persecuted the Old Believers until, by the end of the 18th Century,
>they were almost out of the country. The change was so sudden and
>complete and the old chants were completely exterminated, that when,
>in the latter part of the 19th Century a Slavic council sat down to correct
>the music and install an eight-tone system, no one knew how the old modes
>sounded, and they came up with an octoechos based largely on the Ukranian
>form of chant. The reforms of Peter were indeed a sudden end and far
>from a "borrowing."
See what's free at http://www.aol.com.
- --- In email@example.com, "Stan Takis" <takistan@...>
>(Responding late, sorry)
> --- In firstname.lastname@example.org, "dananetherton" <dana@>
> > One practical benefit has to do with the shortage of skilled
> > cantors.
> > Another is (let's be frank) the opportunity it affords our devoted
> > ladies to take an active role in the worship of the Church.
> Dear Dana:
> True. And let's not forget the assimilation issue. We are still
> assimilating. The US is overwhelmingly Protestant and Catholic, and
> there are many in our Orthodox Church who do not see why we cannot
> be more like them.
"Still assimilating" ... could be, could be. At the same time, of
course, Nia Vardolos fought off Hollywood attempts to change "My Big
Fat Greek Wedding" into something Jewish, or Italian -- because by gum
she *didn't* want the distinctively *Greek-American* elements in her
story to be assimilated into the generic "Mediterranean immigrant" story.
And thanks to the clout that Rita Wilson (producer, and Tom Hanks's
Greek-American wife -- on whose behalf *he* became Orthodox) had built
up in Hollywood, she didn't have to.
And Michael Constantine (for one) could finally *play* a Big Fat Role
that is in his own ethnic background -- perhaps his 5th "Greek"
character in a 35+ year career with 164 appearances (according to
This is consistent with what's happening with other ethnic groups in
America: the byword is no longer "melting pot", getting melted into
"Americans"; the byword is "diversity" and "heritage".
So the assimilation process no longer has to go on to the point where
visible Greek-ness (and visible Orthodoxy) disappears. The "Greek"
part of "Greek-American" (and by extension the "Orthodox" part of
"Greek Orthodox") no longer has to disappear in favor of the
Perhaps it's the younger generation (like Nia Vardolos and Rita
Wilson) that recognizes this, and the older generation that still
clings to the old model of assimilation?
But it's true that assimilation has been part of the history. Back
when I was regularly on Usenet, a cynical Greek-American who also
regularly posted there asserted that the GOA would be gone in another
generation or two -- as the young bail out to join the Protestant
churches, while the old insist on using Greek-and-only-Greek.
That mindset *can* cripple a parish -- I know an OCA parish in my
metro area that nearly perished because of it (different ethnic, same
Perhaps the younger generation -- those members who stick with the
Church despite these frustrations -- will be the ones to break free of
the "assimilation" approach to Orthodoxy. That's certainly the age
range where I see interest in learning Chant. And it's certainly the
age range where (in my own little parochial patch) I see zero interest
in joining the choir.
-- Dana Netherton